The Hidden Oracle chapter 16

Tied to McCaffrey

We might end up in Lima

Harley is evil

 

NOTE TO SELF: trying to reveal important information just before a three-legged death race is not a good idea.

No one would listen to me.

 

Despite last night’s grumbling and complaining, the campers were now buzzing with excitement. They spent their lunch hour frantically cleaning weapons, lacing armor straps, and whispering among one another to form secret alliances. Many tried to convince Harley, the course architect, to share hints about the best strategies.

 

Harley loved the attention. By the end of lunch, his table was piled high with offerings (read: bribes) —chocolate bars, peanut butter cups, gummy bears, and Hot Wheels. Harley would have made an excellent god. He took the gifts, mumbled a few pleasantries, but told his worshippers nothing helpful.

 

I tried to speak with Chiron about the dangers of the woods, but he was so frantic with last-minute race preparations that I almost got trampled just standing near him. He trotted nervously around the pavilion with a team of satyr and dryad referees in tow, comparing maps and issuing orders.

 

“The teams will be almost impossible to track,” he murmured, his face buried in a Labyrinth schematic. “And we don’t have any coverage in grid D.”

“But, Chiron,” I said, “if I could just—”

“The test group this morning ended up in Peru,” he told the satyrs. “We can’t have that happen again.” “About the woods,” I said.

“Yes, I’m sorry, Apollo. I understand you are concerned—”

“The woods are actually speaking,” I said. “You remember the old—”

 

A dryad ran up to Chiron with her dress billowing smoke. “The flares are exploding!” “Ye gods!” Chiron said. “Those were for emergencies!”

He galloped over my feet, followed by his mob of assistants.

And so it went. When one is a god, the world hangs on your every word. When one is sixteen…not so much.

 

I tried to talk to Harley, hoping he might postpone the race, but the boy brushed me off with a simple “Nah.”

 

As was so often the case with Hephaestus’s children, Harley was tinkering with some mechanical device, moving the springs and gears around. I didn’t really care what it was, but I asked Harley about it,

 

hoping to win the boy’s goodwill.

 

“It’s a beacon,” he said, adjusting a knob. “For lost people.” “You mean the teams in the Labyrinth?”

 

“No. You guys are on your own. This is for Leo.” “Leo Valdez.”

 

Harley squinted at the device. “Sometimes, if you can’t find your way back, a beacon can help. Just got to find the right frequency.”

“And…how long have you been working on this?”

“Since he disappeared. Now I gotta concentrate. Can’t stop the race.” He turned his back on me and walked off.

 

I stared after him in amazement. For six months, the boy had been working on a beacon to help his missing brother Leo. I wondered if anyone would work so hard to bring me back home to Olympus. I very much doubted it.

 

I stood forlornly in a corner of the pavilion and ate a sandwich. I watched the sun wane in the winter sky and I thought about my chariot, my poor horses stuck in their stables with no one to take them out for a ride.

 

Of course, even without my help, other forces would keep the cosmos chugging along. Many different belief systems powered the revolution of the planets and stars. Wolves would still chase Sol across the sky. Ra would continue his daily journey in his sun barque. Tonatiuh would keep running on his surplus blood from human sacrifices back in the Aztec days. And that other thing—science—would still generate gravity and quantum physics and whatever.

 

Nevertheless, I felt like I wasn’t doing my part, standing around waiting for a three-legged race. Even Kayla and Austin were too distracted to talk with me. Kayla had told Austin about our

 

experience rescuing Sherman Yang from the woods, but Austin was more interested in swabbing out his saxophone.

 

“We can tell Chiron at dinner,” he mumbled with a reed in his mouth. “Nobody’s going to listen until the race is over, and we’ll be staying out of the woods anyway. Besides, if I can play the right tune in the Labyrinth…” He got a gleam in his eyes. “Ooh. Come here, Kayla. I have an idea.”

He steered her away and left me alone again.

 

I understood Austin’s enthusiasm, of course. His saxophone skills were so formidable, I was certain he would become the foremost jazz instrumentalist of his generation, and if you think it’s easy to get half a million views on YouTube playing jazz saxophone, think again. Still, his musical career was not going to happen if the force in the woods destroyed us all.

As a last resort (a very last resort), I sought out Meg McCaffrey.

 

I spotted her at one of the braziers, talking with Julia Feingold and Alice Miyazawa. Or rather, the Hermes girls were talking while Meg devoured a cheeseburger. I marveled that Demeter—the queen of grains, fruits, and vegetables—could have a daughter who was such an unrepentant carnivore.

 

Then again, Persephone was the same way. You’ll hear stories about the goddess of springtime being all sweetness and daffodils and nibbling on pomegranate seeds, but I’m telling you, that girl was frightening when she attacked a mound of pork spareribs.

 

I strode over to Meg’s side. The Hermes girls stepped back as if I were a snake handler. I found this reaction pleasing.

“Hello,” I said. “What are we talking about?”

Meg wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “These two wanna know our plans for the race.” “I’m sure they do.” I plucked a small magnetic listening device from Meg’s coat sleeve and tossed it

back to Alice.

Alice smiled sheepishly. “Can’t blame us for trying.”

 

“No, of course not,” I said. “In the same spirit, I hope you won’t mind what I did to your shoes. Have a good race!”

The girls shuffled off nervously, checking the soles of their sneakers.

Meg looked at me with something resembling respect. “What did you do to them?” “Nothing,” I said. “Half the trick to being a god is knowing how to bluff.”

She snorted. “So what’s our top secret plan? Wait. Let me guess. You don’t have one.”

 

“You’re learning. Honestly, I meant to come up with one, but I got sidetracked. We have a problem.” “Sure do.” From her coat pocket, she pulled two loops of bronze, like resistance bands of braided

 

metal. “You’ve seen these? They wrap around our legs. Once they’re on, they stay on until the race is over. No way to get them off. I hate restraints.”

 

“I agree.” I was tempted to add especially when I am tied to a small child named Meg, but my natural diplomacy won out. “However, I was referring to a different problem.”

 

I told her about the incident during archery, when Sherman had almost been lured into the forest. Meg removed her cat-eye glasses. Without the lenses, her dark irises looked softer and warmer, like

tiny plots of planting soil. “You think something in the woods is calling to people?”

“I think something in the woods is answering people. In ancient times, there was an Oracle—” “Yeah, you told me. Delphi.”

 

“No. Another Oracle, even older than Delphi. It involved trees. An entire grove of talking trees.” “Talking trees.” Meg’s mouth twitched. “What was that Oracle called?”

 

“I—I can’t remember.” I ground my teeth. “I should know. I should be able to tell you instantly! But the information…It’s almost as if it is eluding me on purpose.”

“That happens sometimes,” Meg said. “You’ll think of it.”

“But it never happens to me! Stupid human brain! At any rate, I believe this grove is somewhere in those woods. I don’t know how or why. But the whispering voices…they are from this hidden Oracle. The sacred trees are trying to speak prophecies, reaching out to those with burning questions, luring them in.”

Meg put her glasses back on. “You know that sounds crazy, right?”

 

I steadied my breathing. I had to remind myself that I was no longer a god. I had to put up with insults from mortals without being able to blast them to ashes.

“Just be on guard,” I said.

“But the race doesn’t even go through the woods.”

 

“Nevertheless…we are not safe. If you can summon your friend Peaches, I would welcome his company.”

“I told you, he sort of pops up when he feels like it. I can’t—”

Chiron blew a hunting horn so loudly my vision doubled. Another pledge to myself: once I became a god again, I would descend upon this camp and take away all their horns.

 

“Demigods!” said the centaur. “Tie your legs together and follow me to your starting positions!”

 

 

We gathered in a meadow about a hundred yards from the Big House. Making it that far without a single life-threatening incident was a minor miracle. With my left leg bound to Meg’s right, I felt the way I used to in Leto’s womb just before my sister and I were born. And, yes, I remember that quite well. Artemis was always shoving me aside, elbowing me in the ribs and generally being a womb hog.

 

I said a silent prayer that if I got through this race alive, I would sacrifice a bull to myself and possibly even build myself a new temple. I am a sucker for bulls and temples.

The satyrs directed us to spread out across the meadow.

“Where is the starting line?” Holly Victor demanded, shoving her shoulder ahead of her sister’s. “I

 

want to be the closest.”

 

I want to be closest,” Laurel corrected. “You can be second closest.”

“Not to worry!” Woodrow the satyr sounded very worried. “We’ll explain everything in a moment. As soon as I, um, know what to explain.”

 

Will Solace sighed. He was, of course, tied to Nico. He propped his elbow on Nico’s shoulder as if the son of Hades were a convenient shelf. “I miss Grover. He used to organize things like this so well.”

 

“I’d settle for Coach Hedge.” Nico pushed Will’s arm off. “Besides, don’t talk about Grover too loudly. Juniper’s right over there.”

 

He pointed to one of the dryads—a pretty girl dressed in pale green. “Grover’s girlfriend,” Will explained to me. “She misses him. A lot.”

 

“Okay, everybody!” Woodrow shouted. “Spread out a little bit more, please! We want you to have plenty of room so, you know, if you die, you won’t take down all the other teams too!”

Will sighed. “I am so excited.”

He and Nico loped off. Julia and Alice from the Hermes cabin checked their shoes one more time, then glared at me. Connor Stoll was paired with Paolo Montes, the Brazilian son of Hebe, and neither of them seemed happy about it.

 

Perhaps Connor looked glum because his mangled scalp was covered in so much medicinal salve his head looked like it had been coughed up by a cat. Or perhaps he just missed his brother Travis.

 

As soon as Artemis and I were born, we couldn’t wait to get some distance between us. We staked out our own territories and that was that. But I would’ve given anything to see her just then. I was sure Zeus had threatened her with severe punishment if she tried to help me during my time as a mortal, but she could have at least sent me a care package from Olympus—a decent toga, some magical acne cream, and maybe a dozen cranberry ambrosia scones from the Scylla Cafe. They made excellent scones.

 

I scanned the other teams. Kayla and Austin were bound together, looking like a deadly pair of street performers with her bow and his saxophone. Chiara, the cute girl from Tyche, was stuck with her nemesis, Damien White, son of…well, Nemesis. Billie Ng from Demeter was leg-tied with Valentina Diaz, who was hastily checking her makeup in the reflective surface of Billie’s silver coat. Valentina didn’t seem to notice that two twigs were sprouting from her hair like tiny deer antlers.

I decided the biggest threat would be Malcolm Pace. You can never be too careful with children of Athena. Surprisingly, though, he’d paired himself with Sherman Yang. That didn’t seem like a natural partnership, unless Malcolm had some sort of plan. Those Athena children always had a plan. It rarely included letting me win.

The only demigods not participating were Harley and Nyssa, who had set up the course.

 

Once the satyrs judged we had all spread out sufficiently and our leg bindings had been double-checked, Harley clapped for our attention.

 

“Okay!” He bounced up and down eagerly, reminding me of the Roman children who used to cheer for executions at the Colosseum. “Here’s the deal. Each team has to find three golden apples, then get back to this meadow alive.”

Grumbling broke out among the demigods.

 

“Golden apples,” I said. “I hate golden apples. They bring nothing but trouble.” Meg shrugged. “I like apples.”

 

I remembered the rotten one she’d used to break Cade’s nose in the alley. I wondered if perhaps she could use golden apples with the same deadly skill. Perhaps we stood a chance after all.

 

Laurel Victor raised her hand. “You mean the first team back wins?” “Any team that gets back alive wins!” Harley said.

 

“That’s ridiculous!” Holly said. “There can only be one winner. First team back wins!” Harley shrugged. “Have it your way. My only rules are stay alive, and don’t kill each other.”

 

“O quê?” Paolo started complaining so loudly in Portuguese that Connor had to cover his left ear. “Now, now!” Chiron called. His saddlebags were overflowing with extra first-aid kits and emergency

 

flares. “We won’t need any help making this a dangerous challenge. Let’s have a good clean three-legged death race. And another thing, campers, given the problems our test group had this morning, please repeat after me: Do not end up in Peru.”

“Do not end up in Peru,” everyone chanted.

Sherman Yang cracked his knuckles. “So where is the starting line?”

 

“There is no starting line,” Harley said with glee. “You’re all starting from right where you are.” The campers looked around in confusion. Suddenly the meadow shook. Dark lines etched across the

 

grass, forming a giant green checkerboard. “Have fun!” Harley squealed.

The ground opened beneath our feet, and we fell into the Labyrinth.

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